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Don’t shoot the messenger. Your life may depend on them

We must listen to witnesses on the ground who are seeing abuse, duplicity, and the dereliction of duty firsthand. Our lives depend on their voices being heard. The op-ed by Sean Thomas, International Director of Investigations at Animal Equality.

By Sean Thomas, International Director of Investigations at Animal Equality

At the beginning of any crisis, there is a warning. There is someone (or someones) who connects the dots and rushes to tell others. Eventually, a pattern emerges and becomes clearer. And finally, an event occurs that reveals the hidden cost of relying on a corrupt system.

Most times, we are rarely caught off guard; we have been told that something is about to happen, or is happening, and we choose to ignore it. Either because we need to be personally impacted before we react or we believe that existing systems are in place that will protect us, far too often we fail to take action before it’s too late. And when warning cries impact economic interests or public trust in government safeguards and systems, we see more and more efforts to silence the whistleblowers.

Investigatori in allevamento di galline in Italia
Undercover investigators are the strongest voices unveiling abuse and corruption in industrial animal production © Selene Magnolia/Animal Equality Italia

Unheard voices

We are now in a pandemic that has seemingly emerged out of nowhere and in its early stages, the authorities apparently thought the disease carried little risk to us all. At the beginning of the outbreak, there was someone who predicted what the outcome would be if we didn’t react. The reason the world didn’t hear from him was that there was an active campaign by government forces to silence his outcry.

In December 2019, Li Wenliang, a Chinese doctor working at a hospital in Wuhan, posted a warning to his colleagues that patients had been quarantined with an illness similar to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Despite the alarm, the initial reaction from the local authorities was to charge Li with issuing false statements that disrupted the social order and to ensure that he did not commit any further unlawful acts. On 10 January 2020, Li contracted what is now known as Covid-19 and then died within a month.

At the end of 2019 Li Wenliang, a doctor of Wuhan, warned collegues that some patients had an illness similar to Sars, later defined as Covid-19. But Li was charged with issuing false statements © by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

As rumors of the illness began to spread online, Wuhan authorities pushed back with statements that these patients were actually afflicted with an unknown case of pneumonia. Without heed to warnings or measures in place for containment, the disease rapidly spread across China and then the world. Over a million documented cases and tens of thousands of deaths later, it is now widely accepted that the novel virus originated in Wuhan, with some research pointing to a local seafood market notorious for also trading in wild animals.

After Li’s death, he was exonerated by the Chinese Communist Party’s anti-corruption agency, and the police officers who silenced him were reprimanded. Unfortunately, and amid complaints from Chinese citizens demanding a higher level of responsibility from those in charge, the system that allowed for his detainment remains intact.

The response from Wuhan authorities to the outbreak wasn’t unique.

As an investigator working undercover in many countries, I have seen this pattern repeat itself throughout the many cases I have been a part of. In the US, I worked at a slaughterhouse that slaughtered “spent dairy cows” to supply the National School Lunch Program. I also witnessed sick cows that were unable to walk being dragged by chains, rammed by forklifts, and shocked and beaten to get them into the food supply for America’s children (and in the process, putting the entire country at risk) — all under the inspection presence of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Allevamento di maiali in Italia
The real conditions in industrial animal farming keep being hidden all over the world © Animal Equality Italia

When the video from this investigation was released, the initial reaction was for the company to deny that any non-ambulatory cows were slaughtered and for the USDA to say that individual workers had hidden the abuse from inspectors. In my first meetings with the federal agency, I was given a statement to sign that absolved them from responsibility and put the blame on hourly workers. It was my refusal to sign the document followed by a national objection that changed the course of the investigation and resulted in the slaughterhouse being shut down and federal legislation being enacted.

Allevamento di maiali in Italia
If we fail to ensure an effective and strong surveillance, we’ll contribute to violations going undenounced © Animal Equality Italia

In the summer of 2019, an Animal Equality investigator worked at the Farmers Fresh sheep slaughterhouse in the UK and documented the horrific treatment of the animals. Lambs would fall through the conveyor system that carried them up into the kill room, becoming trapped when their heads jammed into the mechanism, resulting in the animals being shot and decapitated in front of other sheep. Sheep that were unable to walk from the holding pens to the conveyor were killed on the spot. Their bodies were then placed on the backs of live sheep to be carried into the slaughterhouse and processed in contravention of UK law. The most shocking part of the investigation might be that these incidents were witnessed (and in some cases, sanctioned) by the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) animal welfare inspector.

The lack of even the most basic standards threaten public safety © Selene Magnolia / Animal Equality

Animal Equality is currently assisting in an investigation into practices at Farmers Fresh and is demanding that the company and its officers be held responsible. The FSA inspectors who witnessed the same acts as our investigator saw failed to intervene. Their job, in title, is to protect the welfare of the animals slaughtered at the facility.

In reality, it’s actually to ensure that slaughterhouses can operate at an ever-increasing capacity. This is the same mandate as their counterparts at the USDA in the United States, where the agency is approving programs that will allow slaughter lines to run at higher speeds, with more inspections being carried out by the meat companies themselves.

We must listen to witnesses on the ground who are seeing abuse, duplicity, and the dereliction of duty firsthand. Our relationship with animals has proven to put us in extreme risk of zoonotic transmission, and our lack of enforcement of even the most basic welfare standards causes immeasurable suffering and poses a threat to public safety.

Allevamento di ovini in Italia
Our lives depend on the voices of brave witnesses and whistleblowers @ Animal Equality

Failing to ensure that oversight is meaningful will only lead to more violations going unreported and more disasters created. As the role of official inspection is clearly on the side of production, and when more frequently the truth is being suppressed, whistleblowers and undercover investigators are the clearest voices we have to warn us of the vast level of abuse, danger and corruption that exists throughout the world of industrial animal production.

Our lives depend on their voices being heard.

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